5:00pm: A Tigers source tells Olney (Twitter link) that while they received some calls about Upton last summer, Detroit wasn’t trying to move the outfielder.
9:14am: The Tigers “were ready to move” Justin Upton last season, ESPN’s Buster Olney reports (subscription required). The club’s efforts seemed to go beyond merely testing the market or exploring offers, as Olney writes that the Tigers “pushed to” trade Upton and will make an “effort to dump his salary this winter.”
It was just last January that Detroit signed Upton to a six-year, $132.75MM contract, seemingly making him a cornerstone piece for the franchise (though the deal allows Upton to opt out after the 2017 season). His tenure in the Motor City got off to a shaky start, as he posted just a .590 OPS in April and May before recovering for a .862 OPS over the last four months, including a red-hot September. 2016 marked Upton’s first season with an AL team, so it’s possible his early struggles simply reflected some adjustment to pitchers in his new league.
Overall, Upton hit .246/.310/.465 with 31 homers over 626 plate appearances, with a 105 wRC+ that marked a career low over a full season. Between this middling offensive performance and pretty average defensive metrics (-6.7 UZR/150 but +1 Defensive Runs Saved), Upton was only worth 1.4 fWAR, not a great return for a player earning $22.125MM last season.
Upton has a partial no-trade clause in his contract that allows him to block deals to 20 teams, so the Tigers are already limited in their efforts at a swap unless Upton is open to switching teams. As Olney notes, teams looking to add outfield pop this winter could acquire many players earning far less than the $110.625MM still owed to Upton through the 2021 season. Teams probably also aren’t too keen on surrendering much in return for a player who could opt out after just one year, unless Detroit is willing to take a smaller trade return just for the sake of getting Upton’s deal off the books.
It’s pretty rare for a team to almost immediately start shopping a player so soon after signing him to a huge free agent deal, and the very fact that Detroit did so with Upton could have been something of a red flag to other teams. (The Diamondbacks discussed a Zack Greinke trade with the Dodgers last summer, though Arizona was seemingly exploring its options in the wake of a very disappointing season, whereas the Tigers were in the playoff hunt until Game 162.) That said, shopping Upton could be a sign of how creative the Tigers need to be in order to remain competitive while still getting younger and cutting salary.
Olney’s column as a whole explores how the industry perceives the Tigers as willing to listen to offers on anyone (even the likes of Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander), though since the club isn’t at all going into fire-sale mode, a willingness to hear offers doesn’t actually mean Detroit is ready to unload a cornerstone star. There’s also the fact that many of the Tigers’ best players are in their 30’s, still guaranteed large salaries for years to come and also have trade protection in their own contracts, so the market for some of these players could be somewhat restricted. Younger and controllable options like J.D. Martinez (who the Tigers aren’t planning to talk to about an extension) and Jose Iglesias could potentially be more realistic trade chips.